When Aaron Penman got separated in 2017, he knew divorces could get messy — but he never imagined the grief would come from a paralegal he hired to handle it.
"It's just crazy," Penman told Go Public. "He seemed very professional, he said the right things, he had a contract and just seemed quite legitimate."
By the time it was over, Penman was out $1,100 and still married. When he hired Nyasha (Nash) Muyambo from NTM Paralegal in May of that year, Penman was living in Red Deer, Alta.
He'd found Muyambo online, met him in person and tried everything he could think of to make sure he was legitimate, including checking references.
Penman says he realized something was wrong in September after Muyambo told him the divorce was "good to go" and the papers were filed with the court.
"I phoned the Court of Queen's Bench and there's nothing here under my name. So I phoned [Muyambo] back, asking for a court file number ... He gave me this long, impressive number that the court had never seen."
Meanwhile, Penman says Muyambo, who owns both NTM Paralegal and NTM Traffic Services in Edmonton, wanted more money.
"I said, 'I'm not giving you money until I get confirmation that this is actually in the system,'" he said.
Over the next six weeks, Penman continued to phone the court, but nothing appeared.
"Then the excuses started," he said. "He got harder to get a hold of, refused to talk to me and eventually blocked my phone number." He's been trying to get his money back ever since.
In much of the country, there is no way to tell if paralegals are trained, qualified or even honest.
"Unscrupulous individuals" are taking advantage of people all the time, says Heidi Semkowich, president of the Alberta Association of Professional Paralegals (AAPP), an organization that provides support — not oversight. Membership is voluntary.
She says the pandemic has only made things worse.
"People are losing their jobs but still dealing with legal problems ... So, more people are starting to seek the services of paralegals, trying to find more cost-effective alternatives and running into this issue more and more," Semkowich said, adding that she's seen cases where people were taken for hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.
Unlike lawyers, who are regulated by legislation administered by provincial law societies, paralegals are mostly unregulated in many provinces — meaning they don't need any training or have any sort of oversight.
Semkowich says this puts the public at risk. "Literally anybody can walk out their door at any time and say, 'Well, I'm a paralegal and I can help you with your legal problem' [so] people in the public are being taken advantage of."
That has some paralegals asking to be regulated, including Semkowich's group, which says the reputation of the entire profession is suffering because of a problem few. But in most provinces, those calls have been ignored or rejected.
'Hung out to dry'
It didn't take long for Penman to realize he, too, was on his own. He tried getting help through the AAPP, but was told since Muyambo was not a member, there was nothing it could do.
He says he got no help from police either, who told him since he'd signed a contract, his only recourse was small claims court — which would cost him more than Muyambo took.
"You're left hung out to dry," said Penman who moved to Kamloops, B.C., in 2019.
"It's a hopeless situation. I considered going up to Edmonton [where Muyambo was based], but thought, what's the point of the drive if I get up there and just become enraged that it doesn't go anywhere?"
For his part, Muyambo seems to have disappeared. His business numbers have been disconnected, his cell phone number now belongs to someone else, and he didn't answer any of Go Public's messages.
At the address given on an online listing of his paralegal business, the house is cleared out and the mailbox overflowing.
Police are also looking for him. Go Public found an active warrant for fraud under $5,000 was issued in 2019. That charge involves another former client who says Muyambo took his money and ran.
WATCH | Alberta man who hired paralegal to handle divorce says he's out $1,100:
More than disappearing money
There is no consistency across the country when it comes to governing paralegals. It ranges from no oversight at all in Alberta to some in B.C. and Quebec (where lawyers oversee them), to full regulation in Ontario through its law society.
Semkowich says paralegals taking money and running make up the most common complaints, but she also hears of missed deadlines for filing civil claims, or documents that are prepared incorrectly.
"People are losing their ability to even pursue their legal avenues," she said, adding that not all the complaints involve paralegals acting in a "malicious way" — some seem simply get in over their heads and run away.
Some law societies are pushing for changes to their province's legislation that would include oversight of paralegals.
In Manitoba, proposed changes to the Legal Profession Act would specify the training required for paralegals to offer some legal services. The Law Society of Saskatchewan — where, right now, anyone can say they are a paralegal — is also working on developing a new licensing system for non-lawyers.
The AAPP has repeatedly asked the Alberta government to allow them to regulate the profession, to make membership mandatory and require professional liability insurance so clients can be compensated when things go wrong.
But Alberta's government doesn't want to get involved.
"Regulating paralegals and legal assistants would lead to further regulatory requirements and higher costs for the individuals in these careers and Albertans wishing to use their services," Blaise Boehmer, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General, wrote in an email to Go Public.
"If Albertans feel they have been defrauded," he added, "they should contact the police."
That's disappointing to Penman, who has all but given up on ever seeing the money he paid for legal work with his divorce.
He's still legally married.
"I suppose 99 per cent of the paralegals are operating in good faith [but] it's tough because there's a few people out there who are scamming," he said.
"Something's got to be done because there's no way of coming back on these people."
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